The New York Times
June 30, 2002
Their Stage Is a Box, Their Music Exquisite


CHRISTIAN ERIC takes out a musical snuffbox by Nicoles Frères, probably from the early 1820's. It is a perfect example of the Nicole brothers' craft. Consisting of a barrel some three inches long and a shiny steel comb with 65 teeth, it is an inch and three-quarters wide and less than an inch tall. It plays for 45 seconds or more.

The music starts, and we hear a simple arrangement of the French children's song "Au Claire de la Lune." But wait. There's an astonishing little flourish before the final phrase and a repeat with variation. The tune drops an octave, with virtuoso scale passages on top and charming harmonic turns to the minor. It is a miniature masterpiece.

Mr. Eric, along with his wife, Kathleen, is the proprietor of Antique Music Box Restoration. He fixes, restores and collects mechanical music-making devices. His home in this city south of Los Angeles is part turtle habitat, part music-box workshop and part private museum. Exquisite rarities are carefully filed on shelves; others lie about, seemingly at random. They may have as much to say about the Classical era as many a composed masterwork.

The makers had to find a way to get these musical instruments into the marketplace, and the primary vehicle was the snuffbox. The one first heard is No. 1,363 — the 1,363rd instrument made by the Nicoles. Mr. Eric holds up another snuffbox, a small tortoise-shell object that looks as if it were made yesterday. The technology of these cylinder music boxes probably did not exist before 1805; the first historical mention of the music box was 1796.

But what about the musical clock, for which Mozart wrote his Adagio and Allegro (K. 594) and Andante (K. 616) some five years earlier? Mr. Eric points to his left without looking. That one over there was the kind Mozart used. It was made in 1780, but in Switzerland, so it's unlikely that he used this particular one. Musical clocks use a different technology, Mr. Eric explains, and are, in fact, organs or sometimes carillons.

It is jarring to find this elegant yet informal collection here, hard by superhighways, Disneyland and upscale shopping malls. Yet the mall is not a bad place to ponder the modern fate of the music box, which has been reborn as an ersatz vintage collectible in this age of nostalgia. In greeting-card stores around the country, people buy knockoff boxes that play "Home Sweet Home" (the commonest music-box theme, Mr. Eric says), "Lara's Theme" from "Dr. Zhivago" and almost anything else you can imagine, usually in tinny sound. Thousands of Christmas boxes, often combined with snow globes, play seasonal music as Snow White or Santa spins slowly.

Kathleen Eric, herself a gifted woodcarver, music-box technician and collector, loathes snow globes. "What I really hate," she says, "is when someone comes to the store asking me to put water back in their snow globe."

Christian Eric, though soft-spoken, also has his bêtes noires. "My biggest gripe," he said, "is when a decorator arrives with 10 grand to spend, finds a stunning old music box and says: `That's just what I want. Do you have it in a different color?' "

Reaching into a large display case, he points to the works of a music box about a foot long with a huge cylinder. It has 201 notes and can play a two-and-a-half-minute overture. It was made by François Nicole, a distant relative of the brothers Nicole. It dates from about 1825 and represents a great advance over the little snuffboxes.

He touches a lever, and out comes the fugue from Mozart's "Magic Flute" Overture, as if Papageno had suddenly taken a smart potion and were tinkling out the overture on his magic bells. Here is a vastly different conception from the snuffbox; suddenly we are listening to an extended passage of serious music. This is possibly the oldest overture music box ever made. And François Nicole devised the technology for it.

Mr. Eric plays another box, from a musical clock. A thin sound comes out. It doesn't compare musically, having fewer teeth on the comb and far fewer bass notes. François Nicole invented the damper that allowed bass notes to be played without extraneous noise. The 1830's proved the high point of the music-box industry, not in volume but in virtuosity.

What do we know about these early music-box pioneers? Lots, it turns out, but there is much that we don't know. They were obviously excellent musicians. You cannot produce a thing like this without being a musician. Many who thought they would like to get into the music-box business gave up, because too much musicianship was involved.

Mr. Eric says that the mechanical aspect, which most people would consider complicated, is actually the simplest part. Clockmakers have known for centuries how to produce such mechanisms and count the gearing. The hard part is laying out the music, producing a musical comb and tuning it accurately. You have to figure out where each note of a measure of music fits on the surface of the cylinder and then carefully dimple the spot to be drilled. If you have repeated notes, you may need several teeth playing the same note. All this must be meticulously planned long before you get out your tiny drill press to create places for the pins.

Mr. Eric pulls out an old piece of manuscript paper. (He has perhaps the largest collection of music-box manuscripts in the world.) It shows "Che bell'istoria," an aria from Meyerbeer's "Robert le Diable." He patiently shows how the arranger creates the scale of notes to be used (the gamme) and plans the exact length of the piece. Manuscript measures are numbered, because only X number of measures will fit in a rotation of a given cylinder. To add measures, you have to increase their speed.

One is struck by the range of styles and shapes of boxes. There are musical harps, huge clocks and tiny watches, snuffboxes, patch-boxes and sewing kits called "nécessaires." (One of these, from the beginning of the 19th century, plays a haunting Irish folk song.) There are bird boxes that chirp, musical automatons and an endless variety of musical trinkets. Mr. Eric takes out a ladies' brooch from 1815 in the shape of a watch, with a little disc called a "sur plateau" movement. It plays a tiny march.

                                                                                                                                   Continued to Page 2


                               Monica Almeida 
                          The New York Times
Christian Eric collects and restores mechanical music-making devices


                                 Christian Eric
A "super-mandolin" musical clock, circa 1870.



                           Monica Almeida  The New York Times
A gold snuffbox,
ordered by Napoleon.